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Online social networking is a phenomenon of the first decade of the twenty-first century. It refers to the use of social network sites (SNSs) – such as MySpace and Facebook – for online communication, the establishment and extension of friendships and personal networks. SNSs are defined as ”web-based services that allow individuals to: (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system.” These sites share properties of persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences (Boyd and Ellison 2007). Researchers differ over what counts as a social network site in the dynamic web environment. The following focuses on what are most commonly acknowledged as SNSs. It does not include photo and video sharing sites (such as Flickr and You Tube), virtual worlds (Second Life), microblogging (Twitter), social bookmarking (Delicious), or aggregating services (FriendFeed).
SNSs are among the features that characterize ”Web 2.0”; others are blogs, wikis, podcasts, and vodcasts. While there is debate about the extent to which the World Wide Web has entered its second generation in technical terms, there is general agreement that there is now greater interactivity, user participation, data sharing, and networking. In the Internet environment users now create as well as consume content; and while Web 1.0 was primarily an information source, Web 2.0 is a participatory environment. Thus ”user-generated content” is a defining feature of Web 2.0 – and one of the characteristics of SNSs.
The sites are based on users providing personal information – building profiles with information on background, interests, work, etc., uploading photographs, and in some cases music and videos -”making friends” with other users, perhaps joining site-based groups, or using the site to organize events. Sites may encourage activities in particular areas (for example, music sharing), and the extent of customization of individual sites varies.
The largest SNSs in the western world are now owned by large corporations. MySpace, established in 1999 by eUniverse (later Intermix), was acquired in July 2005 by News Corporation for $580 million. Facebook was originally developed for, and restricted to, students at Harvard College when launched in early 2004. (It is named after the face-books issued to incoming college students and staff as a means of familiarizing them with the College.) By September 2006 Facebook had been open to anyone aged 13 or older and began to attract corporate world attention. Venture capital companies invested, and in October 2007 Microsoft purchased a 1.6 percent share (for $240 million); in the following month twelve global brands became involved with Facebook Ads (including Coca-Cola, Sony Pictures, and Blockbuster). In March 2008 Bebo, founded in early 2005 by Michael and Xochi Birch, was sold to AOL for $850 million.
While SNSs have created new communication, socializing and political opportunities, extended collaboration between the music industry and new media, and collaborative possibilities for old and new media, during the short time they have existed they have become controversial. While one might have predicted that scholarly interest in SNSs would reflect existing theoretical approaches -such as social network theory and Manuel Castells’ work on networks in the ”Information Age” -research to date has focused on the following aspects of online social networking: online relationships and online-offline connections, friendship and friendship management, profiles and impression management, privacy, trust, surveillance, and to a lesser extent commercialization, marketing, and commodification. Because SNSs are relatively new, there is an absence of longitudinal studies; research has also tended to be based on small samples (relevant to numbers of users reportedly engaged in online social networking); and despite their global scale, cross-cultural studies of SNSs are lacking. Thus scholarly understanding of SNS use and users is limited. It should not be forgotten that global inequalities of access to the Internet mean that, even in the first decade of the twenty-first century, there are areas of the world where online social networking is still not an option.
- Boyd, D. M. and Ellison, N. B. (2007) Social network sites: definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (1): article 11, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1083-6101
- List of Social Networking Websites: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_social_networking_websites